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Tips for the Compleat Gardener: Battalions of pepperweed


Spring is swelling into being and space is being taken by the fastest germinator among annual weeds such as Lepidium campestre [lep-ID-ium cam-PEST-re] commonly known as field pepperweed or peppercress.

This weed has a head start because it plants itself in late summer, digs deep into the soil and sends up a late-winter rosette of leaves from which the flowering stems will emerge the first warm spell.

The flowers are small, white clusters that are not impressive except en masse as in this picture where they seem to fade off into the distant lawn, punctuated by the dreaded lesser celandine with purple dead nettle in the foreground (Lamium purpureus), a weed I find myself kind of liking.

Lamium is related to creeping charlie which is the more aggressive. Pepperweed tends to ripen, cast seeds and die by early summer remaining present in thin, tan-colored stalks like fog on the meadow.

A similar but smaller weed has been popping up in gardens all over, hoary bitter cress, Cardamine hirsute; it is very small with stems of little leaves rising from a vibrant-green rosette and a flourish of tiny, white flowers at the top. It comes out easily because it is one root. The shepherd’s purse comes from a rosette of toothy leaves and has heart-shaped seed pods. These are all known as “winter annuals” for their early start.

My all-time favorite book on identifying the weeds is called “Weeds of the Northeast” by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiThomaso, and I got mine at the Bowman Hill Wildflower Preserve on River Road.

This is a great time to start your woodland experience with a tour at the preserve because so many spring things are unfolding. The redbud is beginning to glow and the woods are filled with trillium, you will find yourself delighted at every turn.

In your own garden, weed, especially those things as the cresses that are already setting seed, forget about wasting time on the lesser celandine except to remove any isolated clumps. Take pictures of spaces that could use bulbs in the fall and of large clumps of daffodils that are not producing many flowers so you can dig them up and divide after foliage begins to fade.

Now is a good time to plant shrubs and perennials and nurseries have much to sell. Wait until after the full moon for annuals, there is often a late frost with the April moon.

This year the magnolias managed to have their display without a browning frost; now if the weather cools a little the bulbs will be prolonged. Truth is last night’s hard rain and this moment’s big winds have the daffodils are more splayed than upright.

Nothing humbles me more than nature, a force over which I have no real control. Think about the invisible nature of wind made tangible by its effect on what it passes.

Today the arms of still-naked trees wave wildly about.